What are the Vatican’s next steps in the child porn case?

By Adelaide Mena

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What happens when Vatican City State diplomats commit crimes? The recent recall of a Vatican diplomat from the U.S. Nunciature in Washington, following suspicions of child pornography possession brings together both the workings of the criminal justice system at the Vatican and international diplomatic law.

“We are not yet at the conclusion of the criminal investigation, but I think it wise that he’s been recalled now,” said Dr. Kurt Martens, a Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America.

According to a Sept. 15 communique issued by the Vatican, the U.S. State Department notified the Vatican Secretariat of State on Aug. 21 of a possible “violation of laws relating to child pornography images” by a member of the Vatican diplomatic corps stationed in Washington, D.C.

The priest was recalled to the Vatican, where he remains. The diplomatic process of collaboration on the case – which remains under investigation – was initiated, and findings from the U.S. State Department were shared with the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, who also opened an investigation within the city-state of the Vatican. The identity or nationality of the diplomat has not been released.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Department of State has asked that the Vatican lift the diplomatic immunity of the priest, but the U.S. request was denied.

The denial of the request is a standard response and element of international relations law.  

“Diplomatic immunity is not the same as immunity from prosecution,”  Martens said.  “It means immunity from prosecution under the host country’s laws. It means that the priest would still be prosecuted in the Vatican City State.”

The response would likely be the same if a U.S. diplomat was accused of committing a crime overseas, Martens explained. Generally, when a diplomat commits a crime abroad, “they are recalled and tried at home.”

The practice has its basis in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Martens said, so that diplomats in a country are able to do their work without fear of interference from the host country’s laws or lawsuits from the host country. The need for the practice has been highlighted by various accusations of spying or other wrongdoing between two countries with strained relationships. “Diplomatic immunity is something that’s needed for diplomats to be able to serve.”

However, the standard diplomatic protections can be removed by the diplomat’s home country, in special circumstances and at the country’s discretion. Generally these cases do not involve functions essential to the diplomat’s mission.“There have been some cases where diplomats have been charged with manslaughter, where the diplomatic immunity was waived by the sending country and then the receiving country could prosecute,” he gave as an example.

A diplomat can also be unilaterally expelled from a host country.

However, in all of these special cases, the subject of diplomatic immunity and its revocation remains a closely guarded tool of international relations.  “It’s not something you play with.”

If the diplomatic immunity remains in place for the Vatican diplomat under investigation, the case would go to the justice systems of the Vatican City State. “It means there could be two processes: a canonical one before the CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith], and a civil one in the Vatican City State courts,” Martens explained.

Under canonical law, the possession of child pornography is a crime, and in 2010, Pope Benedict added the offense to the list of serious crimes that go directly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the authority in the Catholic Church responsible for investigating and prosecuting serious crimes. Conviction of a serious crime, also called a “grave delict” can result in dismissal from the clerical state.

Child pornography is also a crime under the civil law of the Vatican City State, and carries a range of punishments, including prison time.

The closest precedent to this kind of case, Martens said. is the prosecution of Polish Archbishop Józef Wesolowski, a former papal nuncio to the Dominican Republic. In 2013, following allegations of sexual misconduct, a canonical trial began under the CDF, which found him guilty of sexual abuse and dismissed him from the clerical state. Two years later, he was indicted under civil law for child pornography possession. He died, however, before the criminal trial began.

The Vatican contains a small number of prison cells within the headquarters of the gendarmerie, the Vatican police and security force. Through arrangements made under the Lateran Treaty, criminals convicted of civil offenses by the Vatican City State are sent to Italian prisons. Provisions under the same treaty allow the Vatican to hand over prosecution of civil cases to Italian authorities as well. This arrangement was invoked during the prosecution of the attempted assassination of St. Pope John Paul II by Turkish citizen, Mehmet Ali Ağca. The Vatican covers the costs of the legal proceedings as well as any prison time.

Regardless of who ends up prosecuting the unnamed official, Martens said that as more details emerge from the investigation, the Church will follow standard international procedures and prosecute any credible offenses. “They don’t let people get away with this.”

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